America’s Perilous Habit of Undervaluing Islands:

by admin on March 30, 2014

pictureislandsAs Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel heads off to Asia to urge resolution of some of Asia’s island disputes, many Americans will continue to scratch their heads in wonder as to why several Asian countries are at loggerheads over some small, seemingly useless and unpopulated islands.

It’s a hopeless case of nationalism gone amok, signal some strategists, so let’s move on…Others simply dismiss such confrontations as a mere dust-up over the potential economic value of the sea surrounding bits of coral or barely-habitable rock. That’s all well and good, but…we need to remember that, these days, islands are not just economic assets, valued solely for their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and under-seabed resources.

Islands are military assets with strategic and tactical value.

That’s right. Islands, in an increasingly crowded world, are endowed with growing tactical–even strategic–military significance, and, barring significant volcanic activity or a surge in Dubai real estate prices, nobody’s making them any more.

WAKE AIRFIELDAnd I worry that American national security tastemakers, in particular, systematically undervalue islands.

Background:

It’s not that the U.S. and other Western-oriented allies lack island bases–I mean, Iwo Jima, Wake Island, Ascension Island and Diego Garcia are some of the more rare (and, in some cases, coveted) military assets in the world–isolated outposts far from prying eyes. And these islands are, on occasion, recognized by the Pentagon as unsinkable places that have potential to serve as forward-based aircraft carriers, logistical support assets, test-and-trials facilities, sensor farms and research centers.

But remote, disaster-prone and hard-to-supply island bases are innately expensive to operate. And, barring an emergency, it’s almost always an uphill fight to keep them going.

To some extent, that’s normal. Islands have weathered a fascinating rise and fall in strategic importance. It is still quite stunning that much of the original modern-era military presence at these places grew, in large part, from the logistical limitations of coal-powered ships. But those days are long gone.

wake_islandIsolated, “choke-point” coaling facilities became obsolete after World War I, only to have World War II push those places–along with several far-off patches of coral–back into prominence as aircraft ferrying waypoints, repair depots, logistical support and so forth. And again, as the Cold War wound down, the importance of island bases diminished–with occasional exceptions.

But today, island bases–particularly isolated ones with a strong port infrastructure or a good airstrip–are irreplaceable. Ascension Island was critical in the recovery of the Falklands, and Diego Garcia has been a factor in every single one of America’s adventures in the Middle East. Iwo supports Navy training from a great field, and even little ‘ole Wake, after being walloped by a Cyclone, is punching above her weight as a missile defense test site while gradually rebuilding.

Add in the islands/outposts that are still relatively remote yet remain integrated into a nearby population center (Kwajalein Atoll, The Falklands, Guam, etc.) and they all offer quite a grab-bag of interesting/valuable capability to their hosts.

Remote island bases demonstrate their value time after time. But despite the record, accountant-warriors are always lurking, ready to use any opportunity to move their expenses off the books. The more isolated the island, the harder it becomes to justify a military presence–sometimes even maintaining government ownership of islands in the accountant’s crosshairs (take, for example, the proposed sale of Johnston Atoll a few years ago) is a challenge.

r410499_1939119My concern is that, at the Pentagon and elsewhere in the US Government, the potential military contribution of island outposts (particularly small ones) are being systematically undervalued, which, in turn, may lead the US towards poor strategic choices and miscalculation in assessing how national entities value their bits of contested rock.

We’re just not primed to think creatively about islands as bases anymore.

Some reasons why the U.S. has an anti-island bias:

Islands are administratively out of US favor:  To some extent, qualities that endow bits of rock with strategic value are exactly the same things that make generations of Pentagon-bound, business-minded warrior-accountants and their associated desk-skippers blanche. Justifying base expenses is a challenge under the best of circumstances, and no post-Sequestration administrator in their right mind will dare to request the substantial operational funds required to establish a new “high-operational cost” outpost in some out-of-the-way ocean. So we just don’t think about it. For the US, new island bases are so far out of the realm of the possible, few waste time mulling the matter.

And with the national security bureaucracy no longer primed to consider island bases, we risk developing a blind spot when making assessments of other countries’ level of interest and commitment to islands or sea features.

Map_Contested_EEZs_Indian_OceanIsland bases offer few domestic political benefits: Islands don’t vote. And, right now, the Pentagon depends upon Congressional support. Outside of a rump contingent for Guam, no member of Congress directly “owns” investments made in some bereft island outpost–so unless the military is doing something that has significant “Not In My Backyard” potential (say, destroying Chemical Weaponry), islands are going to have to fight the “why isn’t this item/base/activity being done in my district” argument. It isn’t a fight that the Pentagon wants to wage.

Again, these domestic pressures mean that island bases are being unfairly pushed off the national security radar.

Pentagon is primed for consolidation and minimization of the military’s geographical footprint: The last thing DOD administrators want to consider is the prospect of, say, exploiting the vestiges of America’s World War II-era logistical network throughout many of the Pacific’s 30,000-ish islands. We’re in BRAC mode, looking to shed assets, and, again, not thinking creatively about exploiting geography and mulling new bases or new basing structures.

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The Pentagon is biased towards mobile sensors/power projection assets:  America is eager to hold onto whatever shipbuilding/floating naval assets we can, and that makes the Pentagon predisposed to dismiss, say, the idea of, say, using Thitu Island as a tiny forward-based aircraft carrier or listening post. We prefer sending in a SSN or dispatching a CVN–4.5 acres of floating U.S. sovereignty. And we do this despite acknowledging the fact that, in isolated areas, persistent presence is important and shared bases, outside the public eye, have worked quite well.

Operations off, say, a rented 45-Hectare island in the South China Sea might offer some very interesting geopolitical and operational opportunities that wouldn’t come from a brief DDG/LCS or CVN visit.

We forget that most other countries don’t have our floating arsenal, and, as such, must think harder about exploiting geography–for them, it may be far more cost-effective to use geography to house a missile base, a listening post or air wing than to develop carrier battle groups, subs or survivable combatants (as an aside, we’ve done so much cost-benefit analyses of big vs. small carriers, I’d love to know when the last time we completed a full-on cost-benefit analysis of maintaining some small forward airbases on Pacific/Indian Ocean islets–the carrier would win, but at least this sort of exercise would force defense taste-makers to at least explore the issue a bit).

Washington has forgotten terraforming works: In the US, the era of grand-scale terraforming is over. The whole area of expertise is entirely off the radar (if not entirely defunct), and we’ve forgotten that engineers–back in the day–did things like transforming a tiny reef-top island, Johnson Atoll, into a small seabase housing 1,000 people and boasting a 9,000 ft-long airstrip. Anybody who dares to come into the Pentagon today with such a plan would be laughed out of the room–with the idea mocked as too expensive, unable to survive environmental review and so forth. But our values are not universally shared, and other countries may be quite willing to transform an atoll into a Diego Garcia-like post, regardless of cost and environmental toll.

johnston-atoll-coral-dredging

Pentagon management of militarily-valuable island bases is fragmented. The islands of U.S. military interest are held under a grab-bag of different administrative entities, depriving them of a single, high-profile Pentagon/DOD champion. The Army administers Wake and Kwaj., The Navy and Air Force are more interested in Diego Garcia…and when islands get lost in departmental stovepipes, it makes assessment of overall value all the harder. Quantifying the value of a simple coaling station was easy, but today, with all the different managers, and all the different threats, defining value is a real challenge.

Island vulnerability is being debated: Precision-guided missiles and atomic weaponry are supposed to be the death knell for permanent bases. Personally, I think the threat of precision-guided weaponry is (except those dwelling within the range of China’s massive arsenal of short-range coastal defense missiles) is a tad inflated, but that’s a discussion for another post. Islands are still valuable for flexible forward presence and shaping efforts alone.

So…given the grab-bag of challenges and issues listed here (and many others that aren’t), it is my sense that the U.S. is primed to undervalue islands. The U.S. government may simply be institutionally predisposed to minimize the potential utility of islands. We’re biased. It happens.

What does America’s Anti-Island Bias Mean?

Is America risking miscalculation by undervaluing the military value of islands?

You bet.

Primarily, the U.S. is at risk of underestimating the military value other countries put upon islands and island bases.

We also risk discounting entire important regions. Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan are all archipelagos, and they’re all on the front lines of the Pacific Pivot. We should be right there with them, putting our well-worn (and likely locally unsuitable) Pentagon-grown “anti-island” biases aside to better understand just how these countries are approaching the problem of defending their island territories.

movewater-6-lg

And then, outside of the immediate strategic impacts, there are the second and third order effects–Undervaluing islands, for example, changes the way America approaches amphibious warfare, and likely impacts procurement of new amphibious vessels or other critical assault equipment.

Not having island bases encourages the U.S. to discount assets that might be very useful for island resupply or logistical support.

There’s an international facet to this anti-island bias as well. Discounting the utility of isolated islands may artificially diminish chances of the State Department pressing for a more comprehensive relationship with potentially useful island-holding countries, like, say, France (Or the UK, Japan, Indonesia, the Solomon Islands, etc, etc…).

Conclusion:

Asia is showing us that islands are increasingly valuable and coveted as military assets. So, if old strategies and long-held habit, coupled with bureaucratic and political pressures, are actually biasing the U.S. against islands, the Pentagon must take steps to re-analyze the military value of islands and island basing–and then make darn sure that our assessments of island value are in-line with everybody else–because, in a growing number of places, those little pieces of coral or rock are “in demand” and considered to be well-worth fighting over.

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